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Exclusive: Is Facebook using unauthorized activity warnings to collect user phone numbers?

According to a number of Reddit users on the popular r/privacy forum, Facebook has been using "unusual activity" warnings to pressure people into parting with their phone numbers.

For people who value their privacy, having to hand over a phone number to Facebook might seem intrusive. However, for many people, it appears that it is becoming a choice between walking away from an account  - or providing a phone number to regain access. Historically, Facebook have even been known to request users passports in order to give them access to their blocked accounts. 

Facebook account locked message

Worryingly, some Reddit users believe that Facebook is actually bluffing. They believe the claims of unusual activity are bogus, but their accounts are being blocked completely until they hand over a number. One poster had only recently opened his Facebook account for work when he received the request. 

Reddit user TuckerMcInnes writes:

FaceBook & Instagram are faking "unusual activity on your account" to get you to give them your phone number. My job required I create a FaceBook and Instagram account. I created them separately over the course of a few weeks. I've noticed in both cases, after creating the accounts, roughly one hour later both services logged me off due to "unusual activity" (I literally hadn't used the accounts for anything yet) and blocked further access until they could confirm my phone number.”

There seems to be a growing unease that Facebook might be faking suspicious account activity in order to coerce users into handing over their phone number. 

Not just Facebook

According to many of the reports appearing on Reddit, it is not just Facebook that are using security fears to coax people into parting with their phone numbers. One Irish user going by the Reddit handle eirereddit writes:

“Google does the same. I'm forced to use Gmail because my college uses it. I tried to access my email from within college and it said that was unusual activity. Don't even see how providing my number helped. I could have gone to a shop and bought a phone for €20. Probably should have.”

Another poster, Deadlock93 claims the same thing happened on Twitter. On that occasion the user contacted Twitter directly to avoid handing over their digits:

“Had this happen to me when creating a Twitter account to contact someone. I reached out for Twitter support telling them that I had solved their captcha and that I'm sending them this email so it's quite clear that I'm not a robot and I wanted my account unlocked. They obliged. We need to stand up against these guys trying to grab all our phone numbers.”

Email customers have also experienced the phenomenon. Reddit user kpham12 comments:

“Anyone have the same problem with outlook? I have just created a plain new outlook account, never use the account for any site register but was told the same thing and prompt for my phone number.”

Are Facebook and other tech companies trying to scare us into parting with our information? Or is something legitimate causing these unusual activity alerts? If an account is brand new, it seems unlikely that it could have been compromised by a hacker, yet some Reddit users claim they had only just opened their account - and had barely used it.  

On the one hand, it's possible that the users had already fallen victims to hacking in the past. If this is the case, and somebody has already infected their machine with a keylogger Trojan, it is possible a hacker has attempted to access their newly opened Facebook account. 

Secondly, it is possible that proxy or VPN use is flagging these Facebook users up as having irregular activity. It is not impossible, that Facebook is locking accounts based on the fact it is unlikely for somebody to be in two countries, or more, within the same timeframe. 

Whether Facebook is doing something untoward, or its automated systems aren't working, isn't certain, but public trust in Facebook has been shaky since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and quirks like this don't help. 

We reached out to Facebook for comment, but at the time of publish they had not responded.

If this story has prompted you to secure your data, you may want to consider using a VPN. For more information see our best VPN for 2019 guide.

Written by: Ray Walsh

Digital privacy expert with 5 years experience testing and reviewing VPNs. He's been quoted in The Express, The Times, The Washington Post, The Register, CNET & many more. 


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